This is the thirty-second interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Ned Balbo, poet
9-13 October 2010
cover photo by Daniel Schlapbach
Bio: Ned Balbo was awarded the 2010 Donald Justice Prize, selected by A.E. Stallings, for The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Story Line Press/WCU Poetry Center). His previous collections include Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year Award) and Galileo’s Banquet (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 1998, Towson University Prize). He has also published a poetry chapbook, Something Must Happen (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Awarded three Maryland Arts Council grants, the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, and the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize, he has also published "My Father's Music," an essay on adoptive identity and ethnicity, in Creative Nonfiction's anthology of Italian-American prose, Our Roots Are Deep with Passion (Other Press, 2006). A native of Long Island, New York, he teaches at Loyola University Maryland and lives in Baltimore with his wife, poet-essayist Jane Satterfield, and her daughter Catherine.
IA: Please tell us about yourself as a writer. What are some past achievements of which you are most proud?
NB: Thanks for asking, Sorina. I guess I’m most proud of surviving as a poet: every day I get to practice, read, or talk about the art form that I love. I’m from a blue-collar background (my dad Carmine was a plumber), and though it was assumed I’d go to college, I was the first in my family to do so. I know lots of other poets, artists, and academics in a similar position. It increases our awareness that other lives were possible and not all of them would have left room for literature and the arts.
I’m also an adoptee, so that “other life”—in fact, a whole other identity—feels very real. My new book, The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (from Story Line Press/WCU Poetry Center) explores my adoptive background, as did my first book, Galileo’s Banquet (Washington Writers’ Publishing House). My second book, Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press) took on a different subject—love, eros, heartbreak, and renewal—through literature and art, from Dante, Petrarch, and Greek myth to Roman Catholic memorabilia, Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and more.
Whatever I publish, I’m keenly aware that writing poems is the real achievement and that their reception in the world is largely beyond my control.
IA: What current projects do you have in progress?
NB: I have a few projects under way. One is a collection of poems based on the paintings of Nora Sturges—more on that later. I’ve also written quite a few flash fictions (or are they prose poems? That’s partly in the eye of the beholder). One appeared this year in Pleiades, and I was invited to read several at the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture’s 2010 conference this past May. Finally, I’m circulating a new collection, which, if published, would be my fourth book and would include some of the poems that Finishing Line Press brought out in the chapbook Something Must Happen. Leah and Kevin Maines are very supportive and attentive editors.
IA: One theme that seems to run through your poetry is an exploration of time: how the past influences the present, how the future looms, what we can do with all times. Have you intentionally crafted this theme into your work?
NB: Yes, I’m definitely conscious of time’s passage and the future’s approach. Whether we think about it or not, we all know what waits at the end of the line. This awareness fuels the work of many poets. I think of Randall Jarrell’s wonderful sequence “The Lost World” or Andrew Hudgins’ The Glass Hammer; I remember, too, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters,” in which a son tries to help his abusive, illiterate father convince his wife to return home.
Poems like these aren’t just personal; they also capture that exact moment when ordinary lives pass into history, moments that carry the imprint of those we love or who’ve affected us deeply, and that of the surrounding culture. History and memory are intertwined. As Philip Larkin wrote, “What are days for?/Days are where we live./…They are to be happy in:/Where can we live but days?”
IA: What other topics tend to recur in your work?
NB: Adoption, certainly, and impostership: What masks do we wear? Who are we really? My own adoption was informal and never legally resolved. My birth mother Elaine gave me to her half-sister Betty to raise as her own; I grew up not knowing that Elaine and her husband Don were my birth parents (they weren’t yet married when I was born).
What surprises some people is that the same thing had already happened over a year before: my sister Kim was given to Don’s mother Elfie and her husband. Both of us thought those raising us were our parents. Later, Betty and Carmine, who I knew as my father, moved to the same town where Kim lived so that we’d know each other growing up—a laudable intent, though it was years before we knew we were brother and sister. There’s more to the story, but that’s the essence of it. In one way or another, we were all pretending to be someone else, or misled into thinking we were someone other than who we were.
But these issues aren’t mine alone, and they’re important to address through a broader understanding. Writing about The Trials of Edgar Poe in the webzine JMWW, poet and novelist Patricia Valdata noted, “The anger and frustration felt by each member of these families is offset by poems of understanding, even forgiveness, made possible by a poet who, as a grown man, can see these individuals not just as parents but as people.” I’m very glad she picked up on the balance I was striving for.
More broadly, I write poems to preserve the people I love or remember. I’m concerned, too, with how the future blurs into present or past; the search for what’s sacred; distaste for money’s influence and authority’s corruption; the need to act as responsible stewards of the environment; and the need to acknowledge and protect the powerless. This last is the chief focus of “Hart Island,” the new book’s central sequence, about New York City’s potter’s field, accessible only by ferry—so resonant of Dante—where, even today, prisoners bury the boroughs’ unclaimed dead. (I grew up on Long Island and am very interested in New York history.)
IA: Galileo’s Banquet, according to one reviewer, “teaches some fine lessons which run counter to how most poetry is being written today.” How is most poetry being written today? And how does your poetry “run counter” to those conventions?
NB: I think those comments came from Sam Schmidt, a talented Baltimore poet and a very thoughtful guy. I might not use the phrase “most poetry.” I might have said “much poetry.” But I can’t really quantify it—the field is too large.
I think that Sam meant to praise what he saw as emotional restraint and attention to language, including the use of meter. But restraint isn’t always a virtue: I wouldn’t have wanted Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton, or Harold Norse to hold back, for example. (Of course, the minute you generalize about poets, you think of the exceptions in their work: that poets who don’t hold back can also be tender and reflective is testament to their range and talent—labels can’t account for that. Think of the extrovert Walt Whitman and his understated “Drum-Taps.”)
I hope Sam also meant that the family poems in Galileo’s Banquet weren’t accusatory but empathetic toward the sisters’—my mothers’—decisions and mistakes. Women of the late ’50s had it tough, and the wish to conceal an adoption—that is, bury it in secrecy and pretend it didn’t happen—wasn’t unique to our family.
By contrast, the new book, Trials of Edgar Poe focuses on adoption through the fathers, Don and Carmine, using Edgar Allan Poe and old movies to ease readers into the subject. Poe, raised by the Allans after his mother’s death, also faced ambiguities of identity, including a period in England when he was known as Edgar Allan, and a return to the status of Edgar Poe, mere foster son, when the Allans returned to the U.S.
The literary critic and adoptee Marianne Novy has a great book on adoption in literature and culture: Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama (University of Michigan Press). Adoption isn’t just a reality but a metaphor for all kinds of cultural anxieties and assumptions about the families we’re born into and the families we construct. It’s all over our literature and entertainment.
IA: Another poet I interviewed, Michelle Gillett, said: “A lot of contemporary poetry is very narrative, very long lines, much longer. But it doesn’t really tell stories, and a lot of it is abstract in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily cohere. A lot of it is deciding to be very intellectual, but not necessarily with a lyrical, emotional piece—with that heart that grabs you.”
So she’s saying several things here. First, a lot of narrative poetry today is very long and also uses long lines. Second, it moves away from pure story-telling into abstraction. Third, it has lost the ability to communicate gripping human emotion. In contrast, you tend to keep your narratives shorter, tell a clear story, and stay close to the heart. Or even when you recount a longer narrative, such as “The Woods,” you keep it concrete, empathetic, and in iambic pentameter.
Do you think this is a good description of your work as opposed to, perhaps, a “trend”?
NB: Yes. I guess I resist generalizing about trends because contemporary poetry is so diverse geographically, aesthetically, and otherwise; and there’s so much of it. Some people think that’s a bad thing, but I think it’s great. There’s more to read and discover. It does take time, and it might be tougher for individual poets to break through the crowd into widespread notice. But I feel that when diverse voices vie for attention, we challenge and influence each other, knowingly or not, and the art form is the better for it.
I, too, prefer work with a strong emotional core, and I seldom use poetry as a medium for abstract musings. Yet I very much enjoy the poems of William Bronk, whose work was very abstract, and the energetic word-play and emotional ambiguities of John Ashbery and Michael Palmer, or Language Poets such as Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, or Leslie Scalapino, are ambitious, arresting and, in unique ways, very moving.
IA: Can you tell us about more poets whom you know, or whose work you know and admire?
NB: There are many current poets I admire. A. E. Stallings, Greg Williamson, Allison Joseph, and Bryan Dietrich excel in narrative or lyric modes. Poets who write less narratively, but no less powerfully, include Kevin Prufer, Pimone Triplett, Carl Phillips, and Alan Michael Parker. All challenge me to consider what a poem is, or should be.
I’d also mention Daniel Tobin who writes with tremendous range, gravity, and emotional depth, and Sarah Kennedy whose poems are consistently vivid, striking, and intelligent.
Established poets whose work remains vital include Dick Allen, Alfred Corn, Alice Fulton, Charles Martin, John Matthias, and Elizabeth Spires. Poets whose originality and humor I admire include Arthur Vogelsang and the brilliant, undervalued Bill Knott. And there are many more I’m leaving out, inevitably.
I’m a great admirer of Nancy Willard. It was through Nancy, at Vassar, that I first saw a life in poetry was possible. Her 2004 book, In the Salt Marsh, is one of her best. And it was in Nancy’s class that I first encountered Elizabeth Bishop, probably the single most important influence on my work.
Other poet-teachers who influenced me include James Galvin, whose Resurrection Update I always keep within reach, and David St. John, my teacher in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Both poets’ range of achievement and aesthetic openness impressed me deeply.
In a category of her own is my wife Jane Satterfield whose work I admired long before we became a couple. Her originality, deep feeling, and fierce intelligence are obvious to anyone who knows her poetry or prose.
IA: Getting back to your own work, I’ve noticed that you pack fairly long narratives into short poems: you retell the bare bones of a two-fold story— for instance, a baby survives the sinking of the Titanic, then lives long enough to become last-but-one survivor at the time of her death—within the scope of a sonnet (“For the Next-to-Last Survivor” from your chapbook, Something Must Happen). Is another way that you run counter to conventions?
NB: I write poems of drastically different length—from the ten-part sequence “Hart Island” in Edgar Poe to sustained multi-page narratives in Lives of the Sleepers (such as the title poem, or “Expectation of a Journey,” spoken from the viewpoint of one of the Heaven’s Gate cult members who committed mass suicide in California in 1997.) But I also write many short poems, such as the sonnet you mention.
The effect of condensing a narrative is very different than the effect of developing it fully—comparable, perhaps, to the contrast between the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” a short, tightly constructed single, to the more complex, extended. “A Day in the Life.” I’m interested in exploring these very different effects. And the decision is sometimes very personal: how long do I want to dwell in this poem, spend time with its characters, real or imagined? A longer poem lets me dwell in its world longer. I’m fortunate if readers feel the same way.
IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’? And what do you think about the current state of the arts? What current topics, techniques, and theories are relevant to your practice?
NB: I’m a skeptic of poetic movements. Most reflect a truth, or begin as a corrective impulse toward excesses of the past, but end up introducing new orthodoxies that are ultimately restrictive.
Here’s an example. I know some people would label me a New Formalist, even though that label’s out-of-date. A.E. Stallings has some remarks on the subject at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet the Blog: “Why No One Wants to Be a New Formalist.” She points out that no one who writes in meter seeks out the label “New Formalist,” yet it’s often used pejoratively by reviewers or critics who don’t like a particular poet or just don’t like poems in traditional forms.
In the blog’s comments section, she identifies Ira Sadoff’s influential 1990 article “Neo-Formalism: a Dangerous Nostalgia” as a central document in the subsequent debate about poetry’s direction. According to his essay, the New Formalist movement of the ’80s connected writing in “received forms”—that is, poetry written in traditional accentual-syllabic meters or in established forms such as the villanelle or sonnet—with a populist intent: the desire to enlarge poetry’s readership. Ira’s essay has often been misread to equate the writing of formal poetry with political conservatism among individual poets, which was never his intent. Even so, he believes the work of contemporary poets in traditional forms neither reflects nor speaks to the flux of experience in our own era. Further, its frequent reliance on the iamb doesn’t accommodate a broader understanding of rhythm or more than a century of competing poetic practice and traditions, according to Ira.
I don’t agree. A counterargument might be that the language of any historical moment is so pervasive and inescapable that traditional forms will inevitably demonstrate different textures—a very different character—when poets use them in a new era. Only poets who don’t engage the rich, diverse free verse tradition will so shut out history’s influence that they become anachronisms. The work of Andrew Hudgins, Marilyn Hacker, or Mark Jarman—major poets whose work in meter is convincing and contemporary—shows that this is so. That English itself sustains the iamb is a quality of the language, not some imposed restriction or an arbitrary rule. Metrical substitutions and variations of (relative) stress are the norm, not the exception, in well-written iambic verse.
And the term “received forms” is misleading. Language itself is “received” by us all, and the ways we choose to use it—experimenting with syntax, diction or vocabulary—are no less ours for belonging to a common inheritance. But I understand the intent of using the term: Ira is reminding us, correctly, that all good poetry embodies form.
I always feel an extra pang about Ira’s essay because, in 1988, he was my teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where, regardless of aesthetic differences, he treated everyone’s work with respect—even the villanelles! He’s a fine poet who remains a friend and whose ideas deserve a serious response—one more extensive than is possible in an interview.
This might be the time to mention the critical anthology Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, edited by Michael Theune, which examines poetic structure through turns of thought or unfolding ideas rather than through rhythm or meter. Particularly incisive are essays by D. A. Powell (“The Elegy’s Structures”) and Jerry Harp (“The Mid-Course Turn). It’s a great place to start moving beyond the tired “meter vs. free verse” controversies.
Getting back to your question: poetic movements stir debate and stimulate discussion. Beyond that, they risk diminishing the possibilities we explore.
IA: You seem equally comfortable in lyric, narrative, and dramatic mode, in formal poems and in free verse. What specific techniques do you use that transcend generic boundaries?
NB: Attention to syntax, I feel, is essential. Whether we write in traditional meter, free verse, or use some other technique, like collage, poets focus on enjambing lines and sentences, managing pacing, disrupting expectations, surprising readers and ourselves. Syntax must unfold: it is, in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s phrase, the rhythm of thought and rhythm of song. Whatever our poetic “school,” we’re all arranging words in silence: the silence before and after a poem, or the figurative silence of white space on a page. It’s a challenge both temporal and spatial.
In poetry, anything is possible. The best way to keep all roads open is to want to keep all roads open. I’ve written and published many free verse poems, including several in the new book. Through dramatic modes, we see the world through someone else’s eyes and speak accordingly. (The poet Ai was wonderful at this and her free verse dramatic monologues are a big influence on my work.) The world surrounds us, always changing, and asks to be described: the lyric and its epiphanies are one possible response. I think of lyric poems as small moments drawn from narratives partly effaced: we may not know the entire story, but there is one out there, somewhere.
IA: You have also done some ekphrastic work. Who are the artists, past or present, that inspire your poetic responses?
NB: That question’s well-timed! Here at VCCA I’m having dinner every night with many talented visual artists.
Ekphrastic poems are a challenge. You have to add something new to the work in question—a different way of thinking or seeing—or there’s no point in writing about it in the first place. In the past, I’ve based poems on works by Max Ernst, contemporary sculptor Mark Gordon, and quite a few films: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and The Birds, James Whale’s Frankenstein films, even the Batman TV series of the ’60s.
The Dark Horse, a journal based in Scotland and America, recently published a poem of mine about Winsor McCay’s beautiful and innovative early twentieth-century comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” McCay’s imagination, composition, and use of color are awe-inspiring. And the “Hart Island” sequence in The Trials of Edgar Poe is ekphrastic, too: several passages are based on Melinda Hunt and Joel Sternfeld’s extraordinary book of photographs Hart Island.
I’ve actually just completed a book-length manuscript based on paintings by Nora Sturges. Two years ago, the on-line journal Unsplendid published several poems from this sequence, along with the images that inspired them. In each of Nora’s paintings (there are over twenty altogether), a contemporary version of Marco Polo confronts an unfamiliar culture. The images, beautiful and finely detailed, suggest open-ended, ambiguous narratives that are a pleasure to interpret. I urge anyone reading to visit Nora’s web page for a firsthand look. More poems based on her work are available on-line at The Nepotist and Verse Wisconsin, and a few more in print at Iowa Review and Potomac Review.
IA: I see that your second book, Lives of the Sleepers, was one of five finalists for the 2005 Arlin G. Meyer Prize of the Lilly Fellows Foundation, an award for work that embodies a Christian vocation. If you have a religious point of view, can you comment on it?
NB: I was raised a Roman Catholic, and a strong sense of the sacred inhabits everything I write. I believe that the world is more complex, more beautiful and terrible, than is possible through mere accident, which means I believe in God. I find the story of Christ compelling, and as a poet, I’m untroubled by the distinction between metaphor and miracle; for me, metaphor is miracle and that is enough to sustain my faith. I admire the prayers, liturgy, and symbols of the Church, but I feel distant enough from some current Church teachings that I can’t really live as a practicing Catholic at this point in my life.
Fortunately, I teach at a Jesuit institution, Loyola University Maryland, where some of the best Catholic (and human) values are matters of serious concern and conversation. In addition to eloquentia perfecta—valuing the spoken and written word—Loyola is committed to the promotion of social justice and human rights, themes deeply embedded in my work, such as the “Hart Island” sequence which looks at how America treats its poorest or least powerful people. The Jesuits’ explicit emphasis on reflection—the need to meditate in solitude on how our thoughts and deeds connect to a greater good—reminds us that our actions hold a sacred element. I feel quite close to those aspects of Ignatian tradition that resonate deeply with a broader, compassionate humanist vision.
IA: In light of what you just said about your relationship to the Church, to dogma, and to practice, would you provide a gloss on your sonnet “St. Joseph's Struggle," which appears in your chapbook, Something Must Happen?
Note: The entire poem is quoted in an online review, here.
NB: Well, I’ll give it a try! You probably noticed the poem is a Shakespearean sonnet written in one long sentence—that was the technical challenge I set for myself. Its form reflects, in part, an attempt to contain the tension between faith and reason that lies at the heart of the poem.
What was I thinking when I wrote it? Well, it begins with history: the season of Christ’s birth is traditional, established in Christianity’s early days to appeal to pagan worshippers who celebrated the feast of Saturn during the Winter Solstice. Establishing Christmas at the same time made it easier for converts: they could still celebrate with pagan customs that persist today (feasting, the exchange of gifts, etc.) while embracing a new faith.
Yet those who converted must have wanted more than Roman worship or the physical world offered: something “blessed/by sky or starlight,” the poem says: that sacred element beyond human conception (idea) but accessible by faith; a sacredness we encounter through a literal conception: Christ’s birth through Mary, though the poem reminds us, too, that dogma or a specific faith stance are beside the point: you might or might not call it “God,” and you might not even have a language to describe it.
Somehow—and this is a matter of personal faith, yours, mine, or a reader’s—that sacred impulse became flesh: a miracle? Or the miracle we create when we make the leap of faith? (Maybe that’s what I meant when I said, before, metaphor is miracle.) In any case, St. Joseph faced that question, too, more deeply than most: he had to wonder, plainly, “How did my wife get pregnant?” The answer reason gives is that she did the usual way, and he’s a “cuckold.” But the answer faith gives is the Incarnation—Christ’s conception in the womb.
Which will Joseph believe in his struggle? Can reason and faith be reconciled? Ultimately, that’s the question that he faces. Reason alone is insufficient, but so is faith divorced from reason. We may accept the world as it seems, our behavior driven by need or instinct, or we may look for what’s invisible: that spark of the divine.
IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements in art, culture, or politics? How do you think we got to the phase where we are now? And where are we going?
NB: These are great questions. We live in a culture where a cult of financial austerity threatens every attempt to make things better. This is partly due to the economic conditions we now face, which themselves are due to a long history of wrongheaded, inhumane, materialist practices. In short, we can’t seem to figure out a way to bring the profit motive and simple human compassion into proper balance; we can’t even figure out a way to fund basic education, let alone the arts. A culture that puts a price on everything and values only what can be bought is not one I want to live in. Lip service isn’t enough; resources must be forthcoming.
This is an issue that poet and former NEA chair Dana Gioia addresses eloquently in his talk “The Impoverishment of American Culture.” Arts education isn’t meant to manufacture artists, writers, or musicians (though that happens, too, when talent and temperament receive capable guidance). Its “real purpose,” he argues, “is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful lives in a free society.” This kind of thinking is all too rare these days; too often, we overvalue immediate, measureable benefits at the expense of understanding what kind of people, and citizens, we’re becoming. Dana Gioia, by contrast, clearly sees the connection between informed citizenship and the intelligence and empathy that arts education generates.
This point is related to your more general question of “where we are now.” To put it plainly, a nation’s policies reflect its citizens’ collective character. Therefore, our actions in the world should be reflective, forward-looking, less self-interested, and less blind.
In his Nobel lecture, Seamus Heaney said that poetry’s power is “to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongnesss all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”
Accordingly, I try to write poems and produce work that has some constructive effect, however small the audience; this means I care about what words do, how they translate into action, and how people respond to the work that they encounter. Any time we take these factors into account in our vocation or in our lives, we contribute to the solution instead of surrendering to forces that, in the long run, will diminish our communities and ourselves.